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Dear Mr. Customer: I Try Hard To Be A Great Sales Professional……

by David Brock on May 10th, 2011

Last week, I met with a sales team I’d been coaching on a large opportunity.  For the most part, they were doing everything right.  They had focused on identifying all the critical business impact, change management, and related issues facing the customer.  They had presented a business based solution, presenting a sound business case, great implementation plan, and a compelling reason for the customer to take action.

They had identified some potential legal and compliance issues that could have a serious impact on the customer—financially and within the perceptions of the community the customer served.  They demonstrated how they would eliminate that exposure and protect the customer from legal actions.

As is usual with these situations, they struggled with the customer.  They started with a strongly supportive, enthusiastic customer.  Additionally, the CFO was positive and excited about what they were discussing.  There was another competitor, but my client had, from the feedback provided by the customer, presented a superior solution.

The customer went through a small restructuring, a new decision maker came in, they met with him.  He reported to the CFO and while the CFO was still supportive, he said the decision maker was the person my client should be working with.

The decision maker had little experience in the area my client was addressing.  He was very direct in stating that his focus was on other parts of his function that he thought had higher priority.  My client had a great strategy in stating they would “take this off his already loaded plate.”  With great sensitivity, they outlined the problem with the legal/compliance exposure, suggesting eliminating that would free this new person up to focus on the issues they thought most critical.

Time after time, the customer responded, “I have too much on my plate, this area is not important to me, we aren’t going to do anything, but I do appreciate the work you are doing.”

The sales person kept politely replying, “We understand you have other priorities.  We can minimize the time you need to spend on this issue.  You will have to spend less time than you currently do by outsourcing the work to us.”

The customer responded, “I don’t have time to meet, the savings and benefit are inconsequential to me, I’ll be glad to look at it with you later.”  Which was a surprise—they represented about 5 percent of his total operational budget.

The sales person, still being sensitive to the customer’s priority and time challenges, focused on the legal/compliance exposure.  Politely outlining this exposure put the institution at great risk, from a financial point of view, from a legal expense point of view, from a management time point of view, and from a public perception view.  He politely suggested we could eliminate this totally, asking for only 30 minutes of the customer’s time.

The customer kept saying—“this is not important, we will take the risk, I have other issues I want to focus on.  Let’s work on this later.”

All the exchanges were polite and seemed genuine.  The customer expressed his appreciation to the sales person, said he liked the persistence, he was very appreciative to the sensitivity to the compliance issues, but felt it was not so important and wanted to defer a decision.  He said, “When I get a few things off my plate, I want to revisit this with you.  I like what you have done, let’s just postpone things until I can focus on some other problems and wrestle them to the ground.  Then let’s get back together and discuss your approach.”

We were on the verge of going back to the CFO who had asked us to work with this person.  The principal concern was the legal/compliance issue.  My client knew from other customers, that this could be devastating to the institution, they were concerned this new manager may not have understood the implications.

But first, the sales person takes one more try with the decision maker.  This time, the decision maker had a piece of news for us.  He said, “I’ve made a decision to bring another company in to solve this problem.  They are starting to work on it now.”

The sales person was devastated, he tried to get some more insight, but the customer thanked him and hung up.

This brings us back to the review—we went through the typical things—were you continually checking to see if there were competitors, did the customer give you any indication he might have been doing something else, did he have a history with any of the competition, …….

I turned over every stone, I couldn’t find much that I would have changed about the sales approach—perhaps keeping the CFO more engaged, keeping the old customer—who was still at the institution in a different job engaged, ….

In the end though, we came to a conclusion, the customer misled the sales team—not just the sales person.  Simply put, he told a series of lies.

I get really angry with this behavior.

I can understand, albeit reluctantly, a customer selecting a competitor.  The competitor may have a better solution or may have just outsold me.

I can understand a customer just not liking us and telling us so.  While I might not like it, I can go someplace else.

There are all sorts of reasons a customer may not want to do business with us—as hard as they are to swallow, we can always go someplace else.

The customer expects us to deal with them honestly and with integrity.  They expect us to treat them with respect.  They don’t want us to lie to them or mislead them.

Is it unfair to expect the same from the customer?

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  1. Hi Dave,

    We should absolutely expect the same from the people who are buying from us. It will help them, their organization performance and the professional sales teams they chose to engage.

    That said, many experienced buyers have baggage and sometimes this baggage can result in strange behaviors. As professional sellers, we maybe paying for the past sins of other sales people. Some buyers believe they have seen it all before – the presentations and promises, as well as the disappointments. These past experiences have given rise to a certain weariness of sellers and that weariness may result in certain buyers playing their cards close to their chest (this is not an excuse I know).

    Based on the latest buyer research we are working on, we are confident the sales person who helps the buyer buy, as your pupil did, will be rewarded in the long run.

    Helping the buying team work through their process, helping them develop a compelling business case and demonstrating why access across the buying team is justified should ensure an increase in integrity and honesty that will benefit everyone.

    If you don’t mind I am going to point a few people to this post. It can serve as a great coaching tool.

    Keep up the good work


    • John, thanks for the great comment. It is a vicious circle–sales people behave without integrity, customers reciprocate, things go into a death spiral. As your research indicates, I continue to see that customers respond to sellers who truly create value in their buying processes.

  2. Larry Levine permalink

    My take on this is it sounds like their was no buy-in from them on every stage of the way. Granted you can’t do business with everyone, however; I am firm believer buy-in at avery stage even with changes can be won. I used this to win a verly large deal when 75% into the process they got a new CIO and CFO.

    • Larry, you make a great point–there were some alignment issues at the beginning. Getting buy-in is critical. In this specific situation, the client asked us to do a detailed loss review. It turned out the customer had deliberateily misrepresented his intent, to buy from a vendor he preferred. Customers will have preferred suppliers and will want to buy from them—we all seek to achieve that status. The issue here is that the buyer deliberately chose not to tell my client’s sales person, even when asked directly. Others at the customer were unaware of this and encouraged the sales person to continue to sell.

      This is one of those ugly situations, where occaisionally there is bad behavior on the buyer’s part.

  3. It is unfortunate how often this happens. Seemingly the sales pro does everything right, and it is frustrating to have bad customer behavior act as the barrier.

    This reminds me of a BNET article I read a few months back on mistakes customers make. (Here is the link: I loved this perspective, because although you can’t change the customer’s behavior, you can anticipate and prepare for it.

    Whether that changes things in any way, who knows, but I like the optimism!

  4. Sounds like they did a pretty good job.
    Some additional thoughts…
    Whenever an Ec Buyer downloads you, you must maintain permission to stay in contact with him/her for progress reports. Second, whenever a new player enters the mix you must endeavor to find out if they had a relationship with a competitor in previous job.
    Third, I would tell the new player that my company requires me to send a summary of status and ask the new guy what he may want us to add before we send it. we play good cop, bad cop in that I am giving the new guy a heads up that is co policy to send Ec Buyer an update when proposals stagnate and I am trying to help him by giving him the heads up before it is sent. Remember, you can not lose something that is already lost. So try something, even if it seems risky.

    • Ray, thanks for the comment. The economic buyer, in this case was the person the client was “downloaded to.” The client had maintained contact with the executive, but he made it clear that he was not going to reverse the decision made by the person that he held accountable for the project.

      Good thoughts, though, about taking a risk. The client finally provoked this — unfortunately found out the buyer had been lying. Otherwise, the guy would have held them, expectantly, for some time.

  5. David, regardless of past history (being lied to by salespeople in a previous life) two wrongs don’t make a right.

    In my opinion, this is more attributable to the ethics/morals of the new player rather than anything the salesperson did or did not do. Complaining about it to the CEO will go nowhere. After all, he/she probably hired the new player and won’t want to admit to making a hiring mistake.

    I find it interesting that there is a universal mantra that circulates in the sales profession that one should NEVER lie to prospects and customers (for obvious reasons). Pity it’s often not a two way street……

    • Jeffrey, thanks for the comment. In this specific case, it was an ethics/courage issue with a customer. He chose not to tell the truth. Unfortunately, that behavior exists in any job function. There’s not much we can do about it except chalk it up to experience and move on.

      The real thing is that we can never succumb to the same kind of behavior, regardless of whether we are in sales or whatever function. Open, direct, honest communication is always best. The Golden Rule works.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

  6. Keith permalink

    Great conversation. But as a potential buyer I don’t feel any obligation to share my opinions, preferences or justifications with vendors. I know this sounds unfair but as a potential buyer I am deluged with requests, cold calls, meetings, etc. I don’t feel I am obligated to detail my decision making process to anyone but my internal clients. I’ve had a few aggressive vendors go so far as to demand a reason or send nasty emails after they went through the RFP. I would never lie or mislead a vendor but I don’t feel any obligation to peel back my curtain defend my (or other’s) decisions. I realize how frustrating this could be but I ask you took at it from the other side of the table. We are inundated with sales requests…sometimes, after internal negotiating, getting support, partnering with numerous departments and defending our own rational we’re just honestly not interested in re-explaining or defending our final decisions externally. I’ve grown more sensitive to your side of the coin but in the end – no really is the answer and no amount of explanation will help me do my job better. It may help you – but is that really the customer’s obligation?

    • Keith, thanks for the thoughtful response–it’s terrific to get the buyer’s perspective. Clearly, there are too many bad behaviors on the part of sales people that, justifiably, cause buyers to put up barriers. Too many sales people simply waste the buyers’ time, focusing only on themselves and their sale.

      However, as you point out, the internal stuff you have to go through can be overwhelming. Buying is increasingly complex–both in terms of getting internal alignment, managing the buying process, and making informed decisions. We are increasingly seeing more collaborative efforts between buyers and sellers–really oriented around collaborative problem solving. It’s still too rare. Most of the problem is that sellers aren’t capable of doing this and haven’t earned the confidence of the buying community to be invited to do this. However, the instances I’ve seen (surprisingly it’s been in the area of purchases of commoditized products), it has produced overwhelming results for both buyer and seller.

      I absolutely agree with you, there is no reason or need to “defend” your decisions. Sales people demanding this are trying to shut the barn door after the horse has escaped. They are wasting time, creating “cost” not value, and destroying the relatiionships. They are earning and deserve your frustration.

      Sales people need to create value and engage much earlier in the process–where you might need and value help/support.

      So I think we are in wild agreement. In the future, I think buyers and sellers need to be open to different kinds of relationships and greater collaboration–enabling both of us to do our jobs better.

      With respect to the example in this post, it is an unusual and, thankfully, rare occurence. It was a case where the customer was deliberately lying to and misleading the sales people. As a sales person, I realize the customer and I won’t be aligned and will agree to disagree in some cases–just tell me the truth, and I can decide how to deal with it, can I get aligned with the customer or should I invest my time someplace else. However in this case, the customer was malicious in his intent. Later (after I wrote the original post), it was discovered there had been some unethical behavior on the part of the customer, which created it’s own problem. This is an issue of an individual but not of buying and selling in general.

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